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"Pop Culture Hacker" Jonathan McIntosh on "Buffy vs. Edward"

We love fan-made, mash-up videos. Whether they're anime music videos or strange juxtapositions of beloved TV shows, the creativity, humor and technical skill involved continues to impress us. But, when vidders, or fan video editors, use their skills to highlight criticism of various media, things start to get really interesting.

"Pop Culture Hacker" Jonathan McIntosh on "Buffy vs. Edward"

Last Thursday, we headed to Cal State Northridge for its Remixing Pop Culture panel. Organized by video blogger Anita Sarkeesian, the event focused on mash-ups that specifically critique gender roles in mass media. (Check out her video game commentary set to Flight of the Conchords.) Featured on the panel was Jonathan McIntosh, a vidder, media literacy educator and fair use activist who might be best known to the YouTube-viewing world as the person behind the viral hit "Buffy vs. Edward."

A "pop culture hacker," McIntosh has previously used vidding as a medium for critiquing media responses to war in Iraq and the 2008 presidential debates. With "Buffy vs. Edward," McIntosh zoomed in on the often-criticized behavior of Twilight's romantic hero, Edward Cullen, by piecing together scenes of the blockbuster movie with those from the hit TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the video, he asks how a female lead like Buffy deal with the domineering vampire.

We spoke with McIntosh prior to his engagement.

What kind of mash-up videos were you doing when you first began to learn the technology?

I actually started recording the build-up to the war in Iraq, so I was recording TV-- CNN, Fox News, ABC, NBC-- and me and a few friends of mine were horrified at what was going on, what seemed to be cheerleading for the war. The reporters were really excited about the military weaponry, but there was really very little discussion about what happens when those things land on people. So, we were recording all of this. For the first two days of this war, or any war, they don't have commercial interruptions, but after that they bring commercial interruptions back in. We ended up just sort of scanning through all of this footage that we had from days and days and we notice that the ads started to blend in with the coverage. They would be talking about a weapon or a certain product through part of the newscast and then there were be an ad. I guess in early 2003, we thought to mix those ads with the news footage and some documentary footage, sort of like repurposed ads.

Is part of your goal to start a conversation?

Definitely. I don't think I have anything specifically unique in my analysis of the situation. I didn't make up a critique of Edward Cullen or a critique of McCain and Obama on foreign policy [see "So You Think You Can Be President"]. What I was trying to do was use a humorous and fun video in the style of a remix to further that conversation and to push that conversation outside of political blogs and academic papers into a place that's more of a public arena. I think that humor is a great way to do that and I think that repurposing media and repurposing characters that are already familiar is a great way to open up that conversation. With "Buffy vs. Edward," that definitely happened. I was able to spark a conversation that was there under the surface, it was waiting to happen in a broader arena. It was certainly happening in Bitch Magazine. It was already happening in the academic arena and so on, but it wasn't happening on Twilight blogs. After my remix, it was.

I read that you're a fan of bell hooks. With the "Buffy vs. Edward" video, were you drawing upon how bell hooks tries to engage people who might not consider themselves to be feminists?

Yeah, definitely. I actually really appreciate and admire how she's able to take issues like feminism or other political issues and points of view that are marginalized and she's able to use pop culture, or pop culture icons, to have those conversations with people who may not be otherwise familiar. She has some fantastic books that I love and I was really inspired by that. Part of her approach, which is a very human approach, a pop culture approach, is that she's not dumbing down her analysis, she's framing it with things people are engaging with on a daily basis.

I'm not standing up and doing an academic analysis necessarily, but I am using the same pop culture world to frame those ideas.

It's interesting to see people's reaction to the word feminist. It says somewhere in my description on YouTube that this is a pro-feminist remix video. There have been a handful of comments, not that many, there's 9,000 comments or more and there are probably five or six mostly young men, or I think are young men, saying "This remix is awesome. I love it. But feminism is bullshit, so now I don't." What? You like the content but you're offended by this word in the description? I don't understand.

 

What were the reactions you saw from Twilight fans?

So, there's Team Edward and Team Jacob. Team Jacob was very happy with it. No problem there. Team Edward, however, I tried to make it very clear in all the writing I did that I'm not attacking the fans. I'm not saying that if you have a crush on this guy, you're an idiot or anything. That's not what I was saying. I was criticizing Edward and not people who like Edward. I was trying to be very clear about that. I definitely got a few messages that were very distraught that Edward had met his demise, people who did not think kindly of Buffy. Those were in the minority. Most people were saying, "Oh, my god, this is amazing. This is so cool. Sob, sob, heart, heart. I can't believe that Edward is dead. I love him," or something.

I think this actually gets back to the level of discourse on YouTube or online forums. I'm hesitant to read the comments below any video that has to do with gender or sexuality or feminism or anything in that realm because I'm terrified of what I'm going to see below the fold. It's often obnoxious and often hate-filled, sort of like the level of discourse you would see on a graffitied boys' bathroom middle school wall. In this case, I was really surprised because the level of discourse on the YouTube page and on various forums was very high. It was respectful. Even if people disagreed, they were respectful, most of the time. I was kind of wondering for the first few months, this is odd that it's so constructive and positive. YouTube has this great Google Analytics tool built in, I think it's called Insight, where you can track the age demographics and the gender breakdowns and the country breakdowns. I was surprised to find that 75% of the views were from women and I think it was 50% of those were between 13 and 17. Most of my videos that I had done in the past is completely the opposite of that. I think that the gender and age breakdown had to do with the high level of discourse. The video was embedded in a whole bunch of Twilight blogs. People would say, "I'm Team Edward, so I don't agree with this video, but it's really funny and interesting."

There are a lot of blogs, one of them is called hisgoldeneyes.com, and they posted it there and there was a discussion about his behavior and is his stalking really creepy or is it romantic. It's exactly what I was hoping for, that there would be some sort of critical discussion of Hollywood framing certain male behaviors as romantic when, in real life, those same behaviors would be grounds for calling the police. There's this tendency in Hollywood, both in TV and movies, to frame really disturbing, stalker-y behavior, even down to the plot marks, guy says "Hey," girl says "No" and the whole movie is him trying to wear her down.

I always think of Say Anything. I always think of that iconic scene where he's holding the boombox over his head and is standing outside of her window. She just broke up with him and said, "leave me alone," and he's taking the most intimate song in their relationship and standing outside of her dad's house. If you really did dump something and didn't want to see them anymore and they did something like that, it would be very disturbing. The same is true with Duckie and all these characters.

The nerd in 16 Candles.

Yeah.

Because it's framed and filmed in a certain way, we as the audience are sympathetic to this cute character, but if we take it out of that frame and put it in a different frame, it's a really creepy dude. It seems like Hollywood has this fascination of creepy, stalkerish behavior framed as romance so that's the conversation I wanted to have. Edward and Bella is the most egregious example I could think of. He's been watching her sleep before they even meet. When she wakes up and sees him in her room, she says, "How long have you been doing this?" and he says, "A few months." That means it's been before they met, before they talked. He's been sneaking into her room, watching her sleep. And, he's also a killer. It's kind of really horror film stuff but because of the framing of the story, we're supposed to think it's romantic. He's also a hundred years old, that's another level of creepy. If that happened in real life, in any context that I can think about, I can't think of any context where that wouldn't be like psychopath behavior. If you're dating someone and you have their consent, then it can be cute to watch someone sleep, but this is definitely not that, yet it's framed as this really nice thing.

Then he follows her around. In the first book, he follows her around and it's for her protection, right? I was struck by this effect and by the opposite plot point in Buffy where Angel follows Buffy around. He says he does it because he's trying to protect her. In the first season, twice, actually, she basically beats him up and says, "Leave me alone, I don't need you to protect me." He says basically the same thing that Edward does, but there's an opposite response. When Bella hears it, she thinks that's so sweet. When Buffy hears it, she's like, "Dude, stop following me around." I felt like it's the opposite message and Buffy in that way was very progressive on gender things where Edward was taking it back to Victorian ideas of romance and courting.

Were you a Buffy fan?

Definitely. Buffy is my favorite show by far and I've seen every episode of Buffy twice. I had just finished rewatching all of the episodes of Buffy maybe a month or two before Twilight.

I feel like I'm a pop culture hacker. I'm constantly hacking television. When I'm watching TV or a movie and I don't like what's going on, I start replacing it and switching it around in my mind. As I was watching Twilight, I thought, what would Buffy do? I didn't have the exact lines from her exact responses, but I was thinking what would her character do in this situation.


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